[This post is taken from the IPA and Mannkal Economic Education Foundation's Foundations of Western Civilisation Program. It is very good and deserves wide exposure.]
Almost every civilisation has had slavery at one time in their past. Two recent, and very different movies concern its abolition in the United States: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Spielberg’s film depicts Abraham Lincoln’s struggle during the Civil War to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Tarantino’s film is set three years before the start of the war, and concerns a freed slave trying to liberate his wife from a plantation. Here’s an interesting piece from George Mason University’s History News Network on what both films say about slavery and the law.
But there remains a story to be told about slavery: how liberal economists fought slavery in Britain.
One common nickname for economics is “the dismal science”. Few people know that the dismal science was dismal because it assumed that all people – of all races – were equal.
Adam Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations that “The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.”
But to the English writer and proto-socialist Thomas Carlyle this meant economics was a dismal science. He found there was something “dreary, desolate … quite abject and distressing” about a discipline that advocated all humans be treated as if they were the same.
Carlyle’s essay is available here – the title is too obscene to quote – and a withering reply from the great English liberal John Stuart Mill is available here. The best book to read on the relationship between free market economics and the anti-slavery movement is David M. Levy’s How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics.
One slightly better known aspect of the crusade against slavery in Britain is its Christian origins, depicted in the 2006 film Amazing Gracereviewed here in the New Yorker with barely a reference to William Wilberforce’s Christian beliefs. The National Review was more forthright, in this piece on Wilberforce and classical liberalism at the time the movie was released. Andhere’s an interesting discussion in the Weekly Standard about how Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007.
As the IPA’s Chris Berg has pointed out, the Gillard government’s National Curriculum seems to treat slavery as if it was caused by the industrial revolution and economic progress.